Future of Bemidji's Rail Corridor could be fitness focused

The Bemidji City Council on Monday, July 12, met to discuss the future of the downtown Rail Corridor. The council has been researching the feasibility of how the area could be made ready for development. During the work session, the council heard about a proposal for a wellness center in the corridor from Sanford Health.

Rail Corridor Redevelopment
Concept art of the Bemidji Rail Corridor shows potential redevelopment for the area, which is located by the Great Northern Depot in downtown Bemidji. Submitted concept art

BEMIDJI -- The future of Bemidji's Railroad Corridor may be changing directions.

The area, located in the city's downtown, extends from Park Avenue Northwest to land near the Mississippi River and is bordered by existing rail lines. It's been the subject of discussion since 2017, with interest coming in from community members for potential redevelopment.

On Monday, July 12, a presentation was given to the Bemidji City Council by the St. Paul Port Authority, which was contracted in 2017 to study the land quality of the area. Before the city bought the land in 2003 for utility work, the area had been the site of gas and oil stations, as well as a coal gasification plant.

Initially, the proposed idea for the corridor was mainly residential with some space for commercial businesses. However, plans for the area have since changed and last year, Sanford Health proposed a new wellness center complex for the corridor .

During a council work session Monday, Monte Hilleman of the St. Paul Port Authority said a considerable amount of work has been done to test the soil, which was contaminated by its former industrial use. However, further study would be required should the council look at changing its concept for the area.


"The soil boring and contamination data is there," Hilleman said. "It's how you use that data to create a specific plan for intended land use. When the intended land use and footprint changes, you go back to the data and see if you have enough to find a new solution for a new footprint.

"In this case, on the environmental side, we are 90% to 95% of the way there," Hilleman said. "On the geotechnical side, we're not there as much, and being that this would be a much more intensive development, the infrastructure plan would need more reengineering. We have a great base set of data, but it does need to be customized to a new proposal."

More information on that new proposal was given during the meeting by Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota President Susan Jarvis. In her presentation, Jarvis said for the proposal Sanford reached out for community feedback.

Through that feedback, they found a need for indoor recreation, especially during the winter months. Additionally, Jarvis said there's a desire for gathering spaces to hold events and educational programs. Most importantly, Jarvis said it must be accessible to all residents.

On Monday, Jarvis said the proposed building for the Bemidji community is would have three components. One would be a 37,500 square-foot sports building with basketball and volleyball courts.

Another section, at 55,000 square feet, would include two ice rinks. The third building would be a two-story structure, with 49,000 square feet for a wellness facility and 16,000 square feet for aquatic space.

Sanford Health is partnering with Greater Bemidji Economic Development on the facilities, estimated at $30 million. Sanford Health is intending to invest $10 million in the project while also seeking funding through philanthropic donations and grants.

Should the buildings be constructed, the plan would be for a private non-profit to be the owner while Sanford would act as the lesser and operator.


To keep the complex accessible, Jarvis said a sliding scale membership model could be used. Jarvis said the model is used in Fargo at a wellness center operated by Sanford and the local YMCA.

The model is based on income levels and can implement up to a 90% discount. Jarvis said senior discounts and scholarships could also be made available.

The plan would have the complex constructed on the west end of the corridor, while the eastern section could still be used for residential and commercial development. According to Bemidji Public Works Director Craig Gray, early infrastructure costs for the corridor if the complex is built would range from $3.5 million to $5 million.

At the end of the meeting, the council reached a consensus to revisit the subject in August, giving 30 days for interested parties to develop a more extensive proposal with additional information.

Rail Corridor web art2.jpg
The Rail Corridor off Bemidji's downtown is bordered by rail lines, the Mississippi River and Irvine Avenue. (Pioneer file photo)

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